Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"Democracy Bubbles" and Online Political Participation...

The Obama Administration has taken many steps in using the Internet to enhance citizen participation in government.  It has developed Open Government Plans, encouraged more Electronic Town Hall meetings, and co-produced Online Community Forums on health care and job creation.  But as citizens are able to participate more actively in democratic governance, is it possible that their high expectations can produce negative effects?

That is the question raised by Thomas A. Bryer in his article, "Online Public Engagement in the Obama Administration: Building a Democracy Bubble?" (Policy & Internet).  He argues that the Obama Administration's efforts at online public engagement have led to a "democracy bubble" - meaning that as more citizens participate, the greater are their expectations for affecting political change, and these high expectations, when they fail to materialize, will actually make citizens feel deflated, reduce the sense that their actions matter, and ultimately make them far less likely to engage in the future.  The end result would be leaving society and communities worse off than they were initially.

Bryer goes on to suggest three policy recommendations to fix this:  1)  Ensure that citizen expectations are managed, and capacities for meeting expectations are established;  2)  Be explicit about under what conditions, and with which policy issues, citizens are given power;  and 3)  Provide agency officials with the tools required to moderate online discussion, and educate citizens on how to effectively communicate their interests.

This article is ripe with fantastic catchphrases - "democracy bubble", "democracy crater", "democracy dropouts", and "democracy demand".  However, on its substance, the argument is unconvincing.  Since when is the idea of citizens being able to participate more actively in their democratic government a bad thing?  To suggest that it is a bad thing because it raises people's expectations, and that we should temper those high hopes and enthusiasm in order to avoid disappointment, is dangerously paternalistic.

By this logic, would Bryer also suggest that voting itself was potentially harmful to the collective American psyche?  I mean, wouldn't voting for the losing candidate, or voting for the winning candidate and then being disappointed by what he's able to achieve in office, also be psychologically "deflating"?

This is not to say that the article on the whole isn't without its merits.  There is great potential value in research on the Administration's various initiatives in using the Internet to enhance public engagement, and I hope further quantitative work is done in that area.  The article simply might have been strengthened without its interpretation.  As it stands, you get the sense it's an exercise in logic more than it is something based in reality.


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